Shooting over the hill near Goose Lake at the ceremonial start of the 37th Iditarod sled dog race, Anchorage, Alaska
photo by Frank Kovalchek

Alaska is the 49th and largest state in the United States of America. Separated from the rest of the country, (the "lower 48"), by Canada, Alaska lies on the Arctic Circle. It is still the least densely populated state in the union and for a long time was home to the lowest population. America's final frontier is the size of California, Texas and Montana combined, making it huge in comparison to the rest of the states! Alaska is also home to the highest point in North America and all of the top ten highest mountains in the USA. Across the Bering Strait lies the country of Russia and the continent of Asia.


In 1867, the territory of Alaska was purchased from the Russians for $7.2 million (or about 2 cents an acre). For many years people referred to the acquisition as "Seward's Folly", named for Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) who made the deal. They viewed Alaska as a frozen wasteland, not realizing it would turn out to be one of the United States' richest resources for gold and oil. It took until 1959 for the territory to become a State of the Union.


  • Southeastern Alaska - Panhandle & Inland Passage
  • Southcentral Alaska - Anchorage & Kenai Peninsula
  • Southwestern Alaska - Alaskan Peninsula & Aleutian & other islands
  • Interior Alaska - Fairbanks
  • Arctic Alaska - Barrow, Nome, Kotzebue


  • Juneau – State capital and third largest city.

  • Anchorage – Alaska's largest city.

  • Barrow – Northernmost city in the United States

  • Deadhorse – Alaska's oil center, the production facilities can only be accessed by tours

  • Dutch Harbor-Unalaska – Largest community in the Aleutian Islands

  • Fairbanks – Alaska's second largest city

  • Homer – Halibut Fishing Capital of the World, Kachemak Bay State Park, Katmai National Park

  • Ketchikan – Alaska's southernmost city and the first Alaska port for northbound cruise-ship travelers.

  • Kodiak – The Island Town

Getting there

By plane

Anchorage, and to a lesser extent Fairbanks, are serviced by most major airlines. Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau are also served by daily jet service through Alaska Airlines flights originating in Seattle and terminating in Anchorage. Other communities within the state are served by an extensive system of regional and local air services connecting to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Ketchikan, the state's four largest urban areas. Air travel is the cheapest and most efficient form of transportation in and out of the state. Anchorage recently completed extensive remodeling and construction at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to help accommodate the upsurge in tourism (unofficial sources have estimated the numbers for 2004 at some four million tourists arriving in Alaska between May and September).

By car

Alaska is connected to the contiguous U.S. (known in Alaska as the "Lower 48") through Canada via the Alaska Highway. The highway is paved and maintained year-round. Sometimes it can seem a little over-maintained, creating a uniquely Alaskan and Canadian situation: at any given time in the summer, you're bound to hit at least several dozen (and sometimes hundreds of!) miles of road construction. Since the roads in construction zones usually have only one working lane and, due to the scarcity of roads in the rural areas, there are not always alternate routes available, the construction companies operate "pilot cars" (usually pick-up trucks with yellow rotating beacons and large signs that say "Follow me"). They drive back and forth between the two ends of the construction zone and lead the vehicles safely to the other end. Depending on the length of the construction zone, the wait can be anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours. Since there's only one main road, you can't really drive around the construction.

If you're planning to drive to or around Alaska, make sure to pick up a copy of The Milepost , which is widely regarded as the premier road guide for western Canada and Alaska. Most roads in these regions have small white posts every mile or so indicating the number of miles from the start of the road. The Milepost has extremely detailed route descriptions of all of the roads, pointing out everything from scenic viewpoints and campgrounds down to the names of small creeks the roads pass over. If you're flying in to Anchorage and then driving around the state, pick up a copy of The Milepost at one of the local Costcos or WalMarts - the price there is around half of list price.

Some rental car companies may offer one-way rentals in and out of the state in the shoulders of the tourist season (one-way into the state before summer and one-way out of the state after summer). Check with each agency for details. Also, it is possible (albeit expensive) to rent a vehicle one-way from Skagway to Anchorage with Avis , which is an option to pair with ferry service from Washington to Alaska (see below).

If an immigration issue prevents you from entering Canada, you may not enter Alaska by car from the contiguous US. Note that Canadian customs regulations state that Canadian residents may not rent a vehicle in the United States (including Alaska) and drive it into Canada.

By boat

The Alaska Marine Highway System (also see ) operates a ferry service from Bellingham, Washington up the beautiful Inside Passage to Haines. Plan your travel early as this service tends to fill up fast. A connecting ferry can take you to Whittier (although this service is much less frequent--suggest you call for details) from which the Alaska Railroad connects to Anchorage. Some private companies operate shuttle vans between Whittier and Anchorage as well, and the combination rail/highway tunnel allows road traffic in alternating directions every half hour. There is only one rental company in Whittier, Avis , which operates seasonally and with a limited number of cars. If you're arriving by ship without a car and want to drive to Anchorage, make reservations well in advance for one-way rentals and be prepared to pay an extremely high rate and a substantial one-way drop fee. Unless you've got five people and tons of luggage, it's usually better to make alternate arrangements (train or bus) to Anchorage and rent a vehicle there.

As mentioned above, Avis also offers one-way rentals from Skagway to the rest of Alaska (note that the only road from Skagway to the rest of Alaska travels through Canada).

Various cruise lines sail up the Inside Passage as well, typically ending in Seward or Whittier (these cruise lines usually--but not always, so check--provide transportation to Anchorage and may even include package tours or your return air travel out of the state). Cruises depart from cities such as Seattle, Vancouver, and even San Francisco.

By bus

Greyhound Canada provides service to Whitehorse, YT from points in Canada. The Alaska Direct Bus Line provides service from Whitehorse to Anchorage, Fairbanks and Dawson City.

Some of the cruise lines also offer bus transfers from Skagway and/or Haines to Anchorage.

Traveling around

Most cities and villages in the state are accessible only by sea or air. The Alaska Marine Highway System also serves the cities of Southeast and the Alaska Peninsula. Cities not served by road or sea can only be reached by air, accounting for Alaska's extremely well-developed Bush air services—an Alaskan novelty.

By plane

Although Anchorage itself is accessible via most major domestic carriers and some international carriers, Alaska Airlines has a virtual monopoly on jet air travel within the state, meaning prices are extremely high. The airline offers frequent jet service (sometimes in unique Boeing 737-400 "combi" aircraft, where the front half of the aircraft is configured as a cargo hold and the rear half is configured for passenger use) from Anchorage and Fairbanks to regional hubs like Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham, Kodiak, and other larger communities as well as to major Southeast and Alaska Peninsula communities. Smaller communities are served by the three main regional jet and turboprop commuter airlines: ERA Aviation , PenAir , and Frontier Flying Service . The smallest towns and villages must rely on scheduled or chartered Bush flying services using general aviation aircraft such as the Cessna Caravan, the Piper Navajo, or the smaller Cessna 207, the most popular aircraft in use in the state. But perhaps the most quintessentially Alaskan plane is the seaplane. The world's busiest seaplane base is , located next to Ted Stevens airport in Anchorage, where flights bound for remote areas carry passengers, cargo, and lots of items from Costco and Sam's Club.

By train

The Alaska Railroad runs from Seward through Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks to North Pole, with spurs to Whittier and Palmer. The railroad is famous for its summertime passenger services but also plays a vital part in moving Alaska's natural resources--primarily coal--to ports in Anchorage, Whittier and Seward as well as fuel and gravel for use in Anchorage. The Alaska Railroad is the only remaining railroad in North America to use cabooses on its freight trains. The route between Talkeetna and Hurricane (between Talkeetna and Denali) features the last remaining flag stop train service in North America. A stretch of the track along an area inaccessible by road serves as the only transportation to cabins in the area. Residents board the train in Talkeetna and tell the conductor where they want to get off. When they want to come to town, they wait by the side of the tracks and "flag" the train, giving it its name.

By car

Alaska is arguably the least-connected state in terms of road transportation. The state's road system covers a relatively small area of the state, linking the central population centers and the Alaska Highway, the principal route out of the state through Canada. The state capital, Juneau, is not accessible by road, which has spurred several debates over the decades about moving the capital to a city on the road system. One unique feature of the road system is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which links the Seward Highway south of Anchorage with the relatively isolated community of Whittier. The tunnel is the longest road tunnel in North America at nearly 2.5 miles and combines a one-lane roadway and train tracks in the same housing. Consequently, eastbound traffic, westbound traffic, and the Alaska Railroad must share the tunnel, resulting in waits up to 45 minutes (or more) to enter; for specific times, see the schedule at .

Anchorage and Fairbanks are served by all of the major national rental car chains as well as a number of independents. Some smaller towns around the state may also have a national chain company presence. Be advised that renting a car in Alaska can be more expensive than pretty much anywhere else in the United States, ranging up to (and occasionally even over) $200 per day for a large vehicle sufficient to carry multiple passengers and outdoor gear during the peak season. In the dead of winter, however, you can sometimes grab a vehicle for under $10 per day.

Be aware that renting at the Anchorage and Fairbanks airport incurs a 10-12% additional airport surcharge (plus an additional $4.81 per day in Anchorage). If you're renting for more than a few days, it might be worth the hassle to rent your vehicle at an off-airport location, which usually involves taxi rides or shuffling between hotel and rental car courtesy shuttles. Check with each agency or search off-airport rental cars using an online travel agency to see what cost savings may be available.

By bus

There are several bus and shuttle services that can take you between cities on the road system. You will see many tour buses from major tour lines, although their tickets are usually only sold in a package tour. There are other companies that do sell individual tickets. The Alaska Park Connection sells tickets between Seward, Anchorage, Talkeetna, and Denali. Denali Motorcoach operates daily schedule between Anchorage, and Denali.Alaska Direct Bus Line travels from Whittier to Anchorage, north to Tok and Fairbanks, and also to Whitehorse. Alaska/Yukon Trails has lines from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks, and they also have routes from Dawson City, Whitehorse, and other smaller towns. Homer Stage Line has busses from Anchorage south to the Kenai Peninsula, stopping in cities like Cooper Landing, Homer, Kenai, Seward, and Soldotna. Seward Bus Lines has routes from Anchorage (incl. the airport) directly to Seward.

By boat

One of the best ways to see Alaska is by cruise ship. Cruise ships bring you wonderfully close to glaciers, whales and rocky coasts. Larger boats offering more amenities, while small ships and yachts carrying 12-100 passengers go where the big ships can't, getting you up close to Alaska's nature and wildlife. Many vessels include naturalist guided hikes and sea kayaking right from the ship, perfect for active, casual travelers.

Cruise ships have 2 main itineraries: The Inside Passage Route going roundtrip from either Seattle, Washington or Vancouver, Canada and the Gulf Route running Northbound and Southbound cruises between Seattle/Vancouver and Seward/Whittier.

Companies offering cruises in Alaska include:

  • Holland America. The Glacier Discovery Cruise offered by Holland America Line, runs between Seward and Vancouver, BC.

  • Princess Cruises, , offers both Inside Passage and Glacier Bay routes as well as roundtrips from San Francisco.

  • Adventure Life Voyages, , offer small-ship cruising exclusively, working with vessels in Alaska ranging from 32 to 138 passengers.

  • Norwegian Cruise Line, , offers only roundtrips in Seattle and Vancouver.

  • Carnival Cruises, , has only one ship deployed in Alaska annually doing mainly Northbound and Southbound cruises.

  • Cruise West, , has over 60 years experience exploring rugged Alaska coastline.

  • AdventureSmith Explorations, . Specializes in small ship and yacht cruising in Alaska with over 25 years experience.

  • Regent Seven Seas Cruises, , luxury cruise line with all inclusive cruises to Alaska.

  • Cruise 118 , Cruise 118 Holiday Cruises from Southampton to the Mediterranean, Alaska and the Caribbean.


  • Alaska Marine Highway System, Phone: 1-800-526-6731, . Alaska's Marine Highway consists of over 8000 miles of coastal ocean routes connecting 31 port communities throughout Southeast, Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. Two additional ports are located outside of Alaska - one in British Columbia and the other in the state of Washington. It forms an essential method of transportation for many local residents in towns to which there is no road access. The Marine Highway system also allows walk-on travelers, bicycles and commercial vehicles. You can arrange your own cabin on the ferry, pitch a tent, or roll out a sleeping bag on the upper decks. Naturalists sometimes on board to give commentary on sights and wildlife.

Of course, after you get off the boat, you'll want to stay and explore Alaska's inland destinations. Don't get straight on an airplane and head home--you'll miss out on some of the best Alaska has to offer!


Alaska is huge. It actually spans what once were five time zones! So big in fact you probably won't scratch the surface of what it has to offer in terms of geography, wildlife, local flavor, or Alaska native culture.

You might visit a couple of the regions of the state during your visit. It is quite possible to experience the ancient rainforest of Southeast Alaska, camp in Denali National Park, and kayak among icebergs in Prince William Sound on the same trip.

Another option is to focus on a smaller (still huge) region of the state and spend enough time for a better look and then plan a return trip to explore a different region. Alaska does not have to be a once in a lifetime destination.

Three weeks in the Inside Passage, traveling from town to town by ferry, is likely to leave you wanting more time if you enjoy hiking, sea kayaking, fishing, wildlife watching, scenery, Native culture, biking, ... Online resources for planning include: SEAtrails, a non-profit promoting human powered outdoor recreation opportunities throughout the region (; the Alaska Inside Passage Wildlife Viewing Trail, a collection of wildlife viewing sites throughout the region ( and select viewing trails); and the U.S. Forest Service Naturewatch website (

The Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, is another region worthy of an extended stay and is easily accessed from Anchorage ( for lots of trip planning information). Alaska's Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail includes 65 carefully selected wildlife viewing sites on the Kenai. Explore them all and you'll need at least two weeks. The full guide is online at or search for purchase options. Plenty of public campgrounds make this an extremely affordable do-it-yourself destination if you have a few folks to share the cost of a rental car.

An Anchorage, Denali, Fairbanks, Valdez driving loop also offers plenty to see and do for two weeks or more and can be quite affordable with camping and a shared rental car.

Things to do

There are many things to do when traveling to Alaska. If you are the adventurous type then Alaska will be a great place to go. You can go hiking, biking, kayaking, fishing, and expeditions to see the wildlife of Alaska like wolves, whales, moose, and bears. There are also month-long expeditions to the top of Mt. McKinley.

  • A journey on the Dalton Highway provides a very unique experience. The highway crosses mountains and tundra, the Arctic Circle, and 414 miles of pristine wilderness.

  • Alaska Bear Mountain Lodge (Alaska Bear Viewing Tours) , 907-776-8613, Chinitna Bay, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, 40 min flight from Soldotna, 60 air miles from Homer, Modern Brown Bear viewing Lodge and tours across from Homer, Alaska at Chinitna Bay, Lake Clark National Park. Daily guided Bear Viewing tours, Overnight bear viewing trips, Scenic nature, Modern Lodging and Private Cabins. A Bear Viewing adventure you will always remember!

  • Stay up late to see the midnight sun, it's fasinating to watch in the summer when daytime seems endless.


Alaskans love their food, fresh or otherwise you need good feed to keep up with daily life here. The portions in this state are huge. Almost every little town will have a local diner where one can get a filling breakfast and lots of hot coffee. Try the reindeer sausage with your eggs and hash in the morning and you'll feel like a true Alaskan.

Some foods indigenous to this area are fireweed honey (distinctive and quite uniquely delicious), and spruce tip syrup made from the Sitka spruce which grows very commonly throughout Alaska; and of course there is perhaps the most well known of all Alaskan produce: seafood. Alaska’s fishing grounds are among some of the richest in the world and feature among other delicacies King and Snow crab which are exported the world over. Many local restaurants close to the shore serve fresh halibut and salmon daily, right off the boats. Unfortunately, most of the fish is served deep fried, and asking for a simple piece of grilled fish will usually result in an overcooked, dried out disappointment. Restaurant prices also tend to be rather high.


Beer is a big deal in Alaska with 4 breweries in Anchorage alone. Alaska Brewing Company in Juneau is the best known brewery in the state and their Alaskan Amber leads beer sales. Other towns with local Breweries include Homer, Haines, Kodiak, Fox (near Fairbanks), and Wasilla. In January there is the Great Alaska Beer and Barleywine event. It is the third largest in the United States and may be the largest event highlighting barleywine in the US.


In Alaska cruise ports (especially Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway) the tourist shopping experience is dominated by jewelry, tee shirts, and trinkets that could be purchased at any major cruise port in the world (perhaps from the same chain shop). Yes, there are good buys occasionally (especially at the end of the season), but local products can be difficult to find.

If you are on a cruiseship, don't be afraid to visit stores not listed on the "preferred business'" list provided by the cruiseline. Those businesses paid a premium to be listed and don't necessarily represent higher quality or better selection.

Local Alaskan artists are found in co-op and locally-owned galleries. There are many books, from fiction to photos to nonfiction to children's, by Alaska writers, photographers and illustrators.


When you are hiking or visiting a natural area, do not pick flowers or collect natural features, particularly in a national park or forest. These are protected areas, and if everyone took something away, it would spoil it for everyone else. Picking flowers takes away nectar that is vital for insects.


Alaska enjoys a comparatively low crime rate and is generally a safe place to travel. Keep in mind that while Alaska is wild and beautiful, it does not tolerate fools easily. It is quite possible to get lost, cold, wet, and even die, all within sight of downtown Anchorage. The state's populace varies between extremely friendly to tourists to openly hostile. A common bumper sticker says: "If it's tourist season, why can't we shoot 'em?" Many Alaskans are understandably tired of those people from the "lower 48" who head North to live out ill-conceived — and sometimes fatal — fantasies of living off the land.

The remote parts of the state are its jewels, but be prepared for the trip you plan. Do your homework, and plan on being self-sufficient. Consider using a guide, or checking out local conditions with locals before jumping in the kayak, and heading for yonder point that looked so nice on the map. The water in Alaska is so cold, falling overboard can be fatal within minutes. More importantly, self-rescue becomes impossible often within seconds, especially around glacier-fed rivers. Treatment for hypothermia is required reading before doing any water sports, even during warm weather.

Bears live in many areas of the state and are best avoided. Moose are equally common and just as dangerous, and attack humans more frequently than bears. See wilderness backpacking for more information about staying safe in areas of known bear activity.

Other Destinations

  • Cape Krusenstern National Monument – North of the Arctic Circle, Cape Krusenstern National Monument stretches 70 miles along the Chukchi Sea shoreline. Beach ridges provide evidence of 5000 years of human activity.

  • Denali National Park – Whether climbing or admiring, the crowning jewel of North America’s highest peak is the awe inspiring 20,320-foot Mount McKinley

  • Gates of the Arctic National Park – Traveling through this vast wilderness you will discover craggy ridges, glacier carved valleys and fragile flowers

  • Glacier Bay National Park - marine wilderness of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve includes tidewater glaciers, snow-capped mountain ranges, ocean coastlines, deep fjords, and freshwater rivers and lakes.

  • Katmai National Park - famous for volcanoes, brown bears, pristine waterways with abundant fish, remote wilderness, and a rugged coastline

  • Kenai Fjords National Park - a land where the ice age still lingers where glaciers, earthquakes, and ocean storms are the architects.

  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve - Chugach, Wrangell, and Saint Elias mountain ranges converge here in what is often referred to as the "mountain kingdom of North America." It has the continent's largest assemblage of glaciers and greatest collection of peaks above 16,000 feet.

  • Yukon - Charley Rivers National Preserve - along the Canadian border in central Alaska

  • Lake Clark National Park and Preserve - The Park was created to protect scenic beauty (volcanoes, glaciers, wild rivers and waterfalls), populations of fish and wildlife, watersheds essential for red salmon, and the traditional lifestyle of local residents. Lake Clark's spectacular scenery provides a true wilderness experience for those who visit.

  • Yukon - Canada's Yukon shares most of Alaska's eastern border.

  • British Columbia - Portions of British Columbia share a border with the Alaska Panhandle.

  • Washington - While not connected to Alaska, Washington is the departure point for many visitors to the state.

  • Northeastern Russia - Located just 53 miles (85 km) across the Bering Strait, Alaska's neighbor to the west has greatly influenced the state's history and culture.

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